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Curating Culture

As a curator at the Freer|Sackler galleries, Debra Diamond shares the history and culture of Asian art with the world.


Debra Diamond spends her days giving millions of visitors to Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, or simply Freer|Sackler, something that they may never otherwise experience—a window into the living heart of a vibrant culture, half a world away.

“The core of my job is taking care of objects, artworks, sculptures and paintings from India and Southeast Asia; interpreting them; and displaying them so that they reveal the importance and relevance of the cultures to the public and to scholars,” says Diamond.


Introducing the new
As the curator of the South and Southeast Asian art at Freer|Sackler galleries, Diamond displays those beautiful works in ways that appeal to the radically diverse array of museum-goers who pour through the galleries’ doors every day.

For instance, “to some visitors, an exhibit could be introducing India for the first time,” she says. “They may know absolutely nothing about the country. I want them to realize that it is one of the great world cultures, and that they should be moved, fascinated and respectful.”

“For others,” she continues, “our exhibits might cultivate a feeling of pride in their own culture and the chance to see it from a new perspective.”

Diamond’s efforts are fueled by her wide-ranging education. She holds a Ph.D. in South Asian art history from Columbia University and has studied post-colonial theory and Sanskrit as well. “You need all of that and more,” she says with a laugh, “because the art we’re working with is so rich and diverse.”

To understand and present that art in a meaningful way, Diamond must collaborate, often on a daily basis, with conservators, editors, educators, security staff, fundraisers, photographers and more. “My work is completely collaborative, and I often function as a team leader,” says Diamond. “I may have to be the bridge between graphic designers and religious scholars, for example, making sure that cross-disciplinary collaboration is happening and moving projects forward. Getting to work with so many interesting people is great and is one of the most fun aspects of my job.”


Digitizing the experiences
For Diamond’s future curatorial plans, a key goal is translating collaboration into innovation. “New technologies enable us to reach more people. I’m very proud to say that every single object that we have in our collection is online and available for people to see from anywhere in the world,” she says. The online collection went live in 2015, Diamond continues, making the galleries the first Asian art museum, and the first museum at the Smithsonian, to offer such widespread, tech-enabled access.

In the past, Diamond describes, curatorship often meant simply placing beautiful objects in beautiful rooms. While that paradigm still moves many people, digital technologies open the door for even richer experiences. “In a recent exhibition, we took all of the questions that visitors had generally been asking for years and put the answers on tablets,” she says. “Why is the Buddha’s hair blue? How did this object get into this museum? You can now pick up a tablet, while you’re walking through the exhibit, and find the answers.”

For another exhibition, the museum created what Diamond describes as a “walk-in, digital environment, so it seems like you’re in Sri Lanka. You can juxtapose that experience with the artworks on display. It allows us to tell stories better and on different levels than we used to.”

Such efforts are just the beginning. Diamond plans to implement expanded integrated, immersive technologies by 2020.

 

Questioning gender roles
As an innovative and accomplished female leader in the world of museum curatorship, Diamond finds herself in good company. “Working in a museum and being a curator, in terms of being a woman, is kind of like being a teacher,” she says. “So many women go into this field. When there is a glass ceiling in this world, it’s largely in terms of unequal salaries. But as a field as a whole, it’s a good place for women to make careers.”

While women do occupy curatorships in museums around the world, Diamond hopes to see more women leading their financial and strategic branches as well. “There are lots of things about curatorship that better fit traditional, stereotypical women’s roles,” she says, “but when it comes to being museum directors, men are still largely considered better leaders.”

“Anyone who has studied art in the U.S. recently knows how art encodes and communicates ideas about patriarchy,” says Diamond. “So, it’s a field that at least enables us to think about how power and gender operate.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.